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In the recent Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election, Labour comfortably held the seat with an increased majority; the main talking point, however, was UKIP obtaining 18% of the vote and taking second place from the Conservatives. Although the result has been described in the media as a ‘surge’, turnout at this by-election was only 28.2%, which means that UKIP’s percentage of the vote in proportion with the total of the electorate was just 5%. Such a result therefore has been misconstrued, particularly as the party has previously received higher percentages of the vote in other safe Labour constituencies in recent elections. UKIP’s rise from obscurity in recent years has been impressive, especially as until recently the party had been perceived as a one-issue political party, campaigning for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
At present they are viewed by a section of the electorate as the anti-establishment party, who are not restricted by the party machine like the major parties in Britain. This is why the party has been successful in attracting support from a significant proportion of the electorate who choose to withhold their vote in an election. According to a poll in the Guardian, which investigated the reasons behind low turnout among the under 30s, it found that 47% of respondents were “angry” with politics and politicians, while 25% said they were mainly bored. The rise of the party machine has disenchanted a major proportion of the electorate, who perceive the Conservatives, Labour and even the Liberal Democrats as being out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.
UKIP’s appeal therefore is not simply limited to a proportion of the electorate who are Right of the Conservatives, despite the party being widely seen in this position on the political spectrum. According to a YouGov survey from 2013, the percentage of UKIP voters who see themselves as being right-of-centre stands at 46%, while the percentage of those who claim to in the centre, or even left-of-centre, is 36%. As a result the majority of the party’s supporters have tended to vote Tory in the past, while a minority have voted either Labour or Lib Dem. While UKIP have undoubtedly made significant gains in Labour heartlands, most recently in the South Shields by-election where they won almost a quarter of the vote, their more prominent support is found in the south east of England. The majority of UKIP’s voters tend to be individuals who either strongly support reducing immigration, or believe that the EU undermines British sovereignty, yet there is a substantial minority who vote for the party because of the profound lack of trust in British politicians.
It is however unfortunate that the rise in support of UKIP is based on the ignorance of an unsatisfied section of the electorate. Obviously the party’s primary objective is for a referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the EU, with the public voting in favour of a withdrawal. However, such a political move has been met with criticism, notably from the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. In a recent interview with Andrew Marr, Carney stated that the prospect of a referendum will create uncertainty for businesses and mean that they “hold off” on investment – investment that the UK economy is in urgent need of in order to create a balanced economic recovery. Nevertheless, in an effort to dispel the potential threat that UKIP poses to the Conservative vote, David Cameron has pledged to a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU, followed by a referendum in 2017. Of course, this is a political move that seeks to strengthen Conservative fortunes at the next general election, although whether such a commitment is worth its weight in votes remains uncertain.
UKIP’s chance of winning a seat at the 2015 election however remains slim, especially while the British electoral system of ‘first-past-the-post’ is known to work against minority parties. Regardless, the party’s recent electoral results have pressurised the major parties, particularly the Conservatives, into listening to the concerns of a proportion of the electorate. So whatever we may think of UKIP’s views, from a philosophical perspective, the party has been of benefit to democracy. Whether UKIP’s views in practice are in the national interest is another question entirely.